Photo of the Week
FROM THE SCHS LIBRARY ARCHIVES
“How shall we know it is us without our past?”
– John Steinbeck
by Wendy Polhemus-Annibell, Head Librarian
Fire Island Life Saving Station, 1908. A life-saving crew begins a drill at the station on August 31, 1908.
(Image from Collection of the Suffolk County Historical Society Library Archives. Copyright © Suffolk County Historical Society. All rights reserved.)
“The sea worked on the piles of rubble and as the glaciers melted and ran off to the south they formed Long Island, with rocks on the North Shore and sand on the South Shore. This all adds up to that ‘littoral drift’ along the South Shore, forming what we now know as Fire Island.”
– Paul Stoutenburgh, Old Inlet: Fire Island
The first life-saving station on Fire Island was built in 1848, at the western end of the island, adjacent to the site of the first Fire Island Lighthouse. The second life-saving station was built at Moriches Inlet. By 1854, there were seven stations located at Fire Island, Point O’ Woods, Lone Hill, Blue Point, Bellport, Smith’s Point, and Forge River.
These early life-saving stations were run entirely by volunteers. Local baymen and farmers lived at the stations from October until May to patrol the coastline for stranded ships and perform rescues when needed. Known as Surfmen, the volunteers’ motto was “You must go out, but you don’t have to come back.” They patrolled the beach on foot every night, from sunset until sunrise, looking for shipwrecks. When a stranded ship was sighted, the volunteer crew performed a rescue using a buoy with lines and pulleys. A small cannon was used to shoot a projectile, or weight, carrying a light line out to the ship. Although very simple, this method was used to rescue over 7,000 people from more than 700 ships off Fire Island from 1871 to 1915, when the newly created U.S. Coast Guard took control of the stations.
In 1871, Congress appropriated money for paid crews at all life-saving stations, and in 1874, the Life Saving Stations Act required boat captains to report all shipwrecks.
SUGGESTED READINGS: Fire Island: 1650s-1980s, by Madeleine C. Johnson (Shoreland Press, 1983); Discovering Fire Island, by Bill Perry (National Park Service, 1978); Old Inlet: Fire Island, by Paul Stoutenburg (Author, 1979).
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